Some of us invariably grumble from time to time about picture quality when we go out to watch a movie – blurry focus and off-kilter framing are two of the more common irks – but a small band of cinemagoers grouse about the inadequacies of the cinema experience in a very different context. It is reasonable to assume these are people for whom whiz-bang special effects mean very little, unless they are accompanied by cutting edge sound design. I’m talking about a community of film buffs who go to the cinema despite being vision impaired and, in some cases, totally blind.

When I wrote a feature a while back about blind cricket players I spoke to blind people who told me they sometimes attend movies accompanied by friends, who throughout the film keep them quietly informed about what is happening on screen. This process is less than ideal for obvious reasons (try it at a media screening and good luck getting out alive) but there is a formalised version of it that allows people without sight to absorb film and TV with a high level of comprehension. It’s called audio description and consists of an extensive voice over track that narrates visual activity including settings, colours, costumes and expressions.

The Accessible Cinema initiative, funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing, will rollout audio description technology to 12 independent cinemas in the country by the end of 2009. This represents a significant step forward for the vision impaired cinema-going community, who have long campaigned for greater accessibility. The technology is already available at some venues including Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, which officially launched Accessible Cinema last Thursday, becoming the first cinema in Melbourne to offer a regular season of audio described films.

This kind of initiative is understandably exciting for film buffs like 31-year-old Amanda Tink, who, born blind from a rare degenerative disease called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, has watched hundreds of movies over the years but hasn’t in the strictest sense seen any of them. Earlier this year Tink become one of – probably the, though these things can be difficult to prove – first blind film reviewers in Australia. She appears semi-regularly on Brisbane radio station B105 with a deaf movie buff in a segment called Hear No Movie See No Movie.

Tink told me she’s chuffed about the introduction of Accessible Cinema but says cinema has a long way to go before it can be regarded as relatively equitable for all demographics. The ratio of audio described cinemas in Australia, even after the national rollout of Accessible Cinema concludes, will amount to around the same ratio as the number of audio described DVDs (about two percent) which is well below countries such as England and the USA.

“It’s great that it is happening but a lot more needs to happen,” Tink says. “I’m very excited. There are so many things running around in my head. It’s something they’ve had in the U.S. for a long time and I’ve been desperate to experience it.”

Each of the 12 Accessible Cinema venues will feature one audio description-enabled screen. Patrons who wish to attend an audio described session request it when purchasing a ticket and listen via a headset. Most audio descriptions are imported from the UK; those featuring Australian voices are considered rarities.

The major distributional stumbling block for Media Access Australia and the Independent Cinemas Association of Australia, the two organisations driving Accessible Cinema, is ongoing reluctance from all the major movie exhibition chains (Hoyts, Village, Greater Union and Birch Carroll & Coyle) to implement the technology.

“Australia is quite a way behind in terms of our cinema accessibility. We would like to see major expansion, especially amongst the major chains,” says Allayne Woodford, Media Access Australia’s Cinema Project Manager.

“Meetings with the major chains have been described as glacial (but) we’ve had a very different reaction from the independent cinemas. They seem very willing and have been very positive about it but the major chains have not come to the party. They are putting up many barriers to expanding their services.”

These barriers include the big C word – cost – but Woodford argues that most of the technology is already in place.

Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) informed me that they are currently supporting nine disability discrimination complaints being lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission by people who are blind or vision impaired. The BCA wrote: “these discrimination complaints are being lodged against Australia’s cinema screens which offer captioned screenings for patrons who are deaf or hearing impaired but do not provide audio description for patrons who are blind or vision impaired, even though the equipment is readily available.”

Now is as good a time as any for the big guns to follow independent cinema’s lead, because without the assistance of major exhibitors the ratio of audio description-enabled venues in Australia will always remain well below the 10 percent mark. Accessible Cinema is partly the result of many years of lobbying from the blind and vision impaired community and they are prepared for many more.